Upgrading an ioSafe Rugged Portable to 4TB

For a good few years I had a sideline in writing tech reviews for various Scottish newspapers. One of the products I was invited to review in 2011 was the Solo Pro hard drive from the disaster-proof specialists at ioSafe.

I gave the Solo Pro a real hammering, figuratively and literally. First I subjected it to various impact tests, then drop tests, then I burned it in a bonfire for an hour before drowning it in several gallons of water.

Despite the external case being damaged and the ports completely melted, amazingly the hard drive inside was still in perfect condition inside a waterproof sack and fireproof insulation. In fact, I’m still using the bare 1TB drive taken from that enclosure to this day.

Following that extreme test, ioSafe were keen to send me their newest product, the Rugged Portable (RP). Slightly bigger than a typical portable HDD, this featured a 250GB 2.5 inch drive and USB 3.0. This drive lacked the fire protection of the Solo Pro, but retained the waterproofing and had even better shock protection.

Following a pretty extreme set of tests, which included dropping it down a metal fire escape and stamping on the drive with Doc Martens — all of which it survived unscathed — the ioSafe RP became my personal go-to portable drive of choice for the next few years.

Time marches on though, and 250GB is no longer a particularly useful size, so for the last couple of years the ioSafe has been left on the shelf, superseded by a bunch of generic, plastic-cased external drives.

Fast forward to 2018, when one of my work colleagues managed to break a new Seagate 4TB external drive by snapping off the USB port. Destined for the bin, I wanted to see if I could use it to breathe new life into my ioSafe RP.

The teardown

Extracting the bare drive from the Seagate enclosure was easy. In common with most cheap USB HDDs, a standard 2.5-inch drive was mated to a small PCB which converted standard SATA pins to USB. In this case it was a 4.0TB BarraCuda drive.

Breaking down the ioSafe was a little more interesting. The two part aluminum case is held together by four chunky screws. These screws are hidden under a thick layer of silicone or glue, presumably to add to the water/dust proofing of the drive.

With the screws removed the lid lifted off easily. Around the lid a thick rubber grommet prevents dust ingress, while the drive itself is contained inside a two-piece silicone jacket for shock absorption.

Interestingly, the SATA-to-USB conversion is done in two parts on this drive… the USB side is outside of the dust/water proofing, while the SATA side and associated electronics are held inside the protected zone. The two boards are connected by a thin, flexible ribbon cable which runs through the dust, water and shock-proof layers — a really neat design.

Swapping the drives was surprisingly easy. The ioSafe has a metal ‘cradle’ holding the drive and SATA board, connected by the regular screws you’d mount an internal hard drive with. I found it easiest to disconnect the ribbon cable first, allowing me to unplug the SATA connector without straining on the cable.

Refitting the new 4TB drive was the exact reverse of removal. The only difference was the drive thickness — the original Seagate Momentus drive was 9.5mm thick, while the replacement Seagate BarraCuda was 12.5mm.

In order to make it fit while retaining the water/dust protection, I compromised on the shock protection by only refitting half the jacket. This way it fits perfectly, and the only downside is that lacks shock protection if dropped and it lands upside down.

Testing

The one niggling doubt I had was whether the vintage (2011) SATA to USB board would be smart enough to detect and control a modern 4TB drive.

Thankfully, when I powered it up for the first time it worked right away. All of the files previously on the drive were still intact, and the ioSafe enclosure picked up the full 4TB capacity. Success!

Summary

I really love ioSafe products. I can’t justify the £1,000+ asking price for the latest 1TB SSD version of the Rugged Portable when I’m only using it for personal projects, but as a zero-cost upgrade, I can’t fault my new homebrew 4TB ioSafe… love it!

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